Pharma Lobbying Ensures Meth Lab Explosions

Dan Morse of Washington Post has covered the strangest meth lab explosion case of which I have ever heard, which took place when a police officer named Christopher Bartley tried to make meth in the federal research facility which he was assigned to guard:

According to facts in the case, as laid out in court, Bartley, who had been a lieutenant with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s internal police force, was on duty the night of July 18 when he slipped into a building on the edge of NIST’s 578-acre campus. He tried to make meth. It exploded, blowing out four windows at the lab — one traveled 22 feet; another, 33 feet.

It is fortunate no one was killed in the explosion. Bartley himself was burned as the temperature in the room rose to 180 degrees, but thankfully survived his injuries.

Meth lab explosions happen with regularity in many states, often with far worse results, including buildings burning to the ground, lasting environmental damage from caustic chemicals, and children and adults being killed or permanently scarred by fires.

The only reason the problem persists is that the manufacturers of pseudoephedrine-containing cold medications used in meth-making continue to flood state legislatures with lobbying money. The states that have resisted the political pressure and put products like Sudafed on prescription-only status have essentially eliminated meth lab explosions.

Meth lab explosions can be eliminated without any need to inconvenience people who want to take pseudoephedrine-containing products for congestion. Cold medicines resistant to pseudoephedrine extraction by meth cooks are available and could be exempted from any prescription requirements. But the pharma companies that profit handsomely from their meth-cooking customers will have none of it, and thus far our political system has rarely been able to resist their power.

A Primer for Americans on Corbynmania

v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2 Many of my American friends have asked me what’s going on with the UK Labour Party leadership election. Hence this primer on the state of play.

After the Labour Party’s shock drubbing in the 2015 election, Ed Miliband resigned as leader. The usual internecine fight that losing parties go through broke out: One faction said the party was not centrist enough and another said it was too close to the center and too far from its traditional roots. The former group are known as New Labour or Blairites (e.g., Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and of course Tony Blair himself). Andrew Rawnsley’s massive book is the essential resource if you want to understand New Labour in depth, but in short New Labour explicitly rejected the socialist left, made peace with the market and neoliberalism and was handsomely rewarded for these changes by British voters (Labour were in power from 1997-2010). In their eyes, Milliband lost because he positioned himself too far to the left, and the party will therefore not get back in power unless it goes with someone closer to the center, like Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall.

Rubbish! says the Socialist wing of Labour, whose negative views of New Labour I related in a prior post that quoted Ian Martin’s dyspeptic, hilarious take on the 2010 Party Conference:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

In the eyes of old Leftists like Martin, Labour must return to its Pre-Thatcher era values and policies. And to the shock of New Labour, the traditional left has found a champion who is electrifying the party’s grassroots: Jeremy Corbyn (photo above). You can read a bit about his policies here, which reject the essentials of Blairism in favor of the more socialist policies that Labour embraced during the first 90 or so years of its existence. Corbyn is demonstrating the truth of the same political principle as did Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland: If you passionately articulate a clear political message without equivocation and associated Westminster-speak, many formerly disengaged people come out of the woodwork to support you. What can’t be overlooked about Corbyn is that while he is a greybeard who makes aging Labour members nostalgic for their youth, his message is also resonating with a new generation of young leftists who have been alienated from politics until now.

Despite the vein of discontent he has tapped, Corbyn only has a chance of winning because of a major change in the leadership election rules. Previously, Members of Parliament (MPs) had significant control over who became leader. Now they only get to form the list of candidates on which all members of the party then vote (and in that establishment-controlled phase, Corbyn just barely scraped by). The grassroots members are thus in control from here on out, and many of them are looking for someone like Corbyn who speaks to the hearts. A parallel that Americans might appreciate is what happened in the Democratic Party between the 1968 and 1972 elections: New nominating rules meant that former political bosses were overthrown and a wave of new faces with challenging views crashed the party. Of course their hero, George McGovern, got crushed, and that could happen to Corbyn as well if he ever leads his party in a national election. But based on the Labour members I have talked to, many of them would rather lose with someone like Corbyn than win with a New Labour leader.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room


How did one of the country’s largest companies go from riches to rags almost overnight, if it ever truly had riches in the first place? That question is skillfully and intelligently answered in this weekend’s film recommendation: Alex Gibney’s 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

The title refers to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, who convinced themselves and the world that they had a created a new kind of company that could make unprecedented profits in the energy sector. As one insider puts it, as each quarterly report approached it seemed the company was not going to make its numbers yet somehow it always did, and then some. Enron’s astronomical reported profits did not gain credibility in a vacuum: Its books were audited by Arthur Anderson, its accounts were interconnected with those of some of the nation’s most trusted financial firms (e.g., Merrill Lynch) and all the “objective” stock analysts were singing the company’s praises. But of course it was all a lie, and it unraveled with shocking speed and horrific destructiveness.

This movie adroitly combines interviews of journalists, former Enron insiders and political figures with archival news footage (e.g., Skilling and fellow crook Andrew Fastow’s Congressional hearings) and some truly damning movies made by Enron executives themselves. Although it’s a bit long-winded at 110 minutes, the film has an admirable ability to explain even to financial novices how Enron executives defrauded investors (not least its own rank and file employees) as well as put California through living hell by intentionally starving the state of electricity.

When this muckraking documentary came out, some critics complained that the film massaged the facts for the sake of left-wing axe-grinding. The narrator being staunch anti-capitalist Peter Coyote and one of the key interviewees being the lawyer who led the class action suit against the company (Bill Lerach) could trigger worries for some viewers that the film is simply comfort food for socialists. But any concerns about bias disappear as the film unfolds because the perpetrators so thoroughly hang themselves before the viewers’ eyes. The film accuses Enron of dodgy “mark to market” accounting and backs it up with Skilling himself appearing in a company produced comedy sketch where he brags about the phony nature of Enron’s books. Likewise, the accusation that Enron traders delighted in destroying California with contrived energy shortages and price gouging is immediately backed up by audiotapes of traders laughing over doing just that (Most disgustingly, cheering on a raging wildfire because it is damaging power lines).

Gibney has done a public service with this movie, but it doesn’t feel like eat your peas viewing. It’s fascinating, disturbing and compelling throughout. And also, there is something refreshing about a movie in which white collar criminals who steal billions actually go to prison in the end. Those were the days.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Drunk Driving Deaths: More an Outrage than a Tragedy

I will never forget one of the most horrible phone calls I ever received, even though it was over 20 years ago: “John was killed yesterday by a drunk driver”. John was a valued colleague and wonderful soul who died young when someone driving on a suspended license (lost due to a prior drunk driving conviction) took John’s life and those of the two other passengers in his car. People close to me have received even worse calls “Your father is dead, a drunk driver cross the center line and killed him”, “This is the state highway patrol, I am sorry to tell you that your daughter and grandaughter are dead”. Dozens of calls like this are received by horrified people every day in our country.

Is this a tragedy? In the common usage of the word tragedy as something very sad, of course it is. But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage. We have a technology that has been convincingly shown to reduce drink driving deaths, but most states are not using it. It’s called 24/7 Sobriety and it not only reduces intoxicated driving, but domestic violence and imprisonment too.

The details of this remarkably simple, effective program are in my article at Wall Street Journal.

Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: My Name is Julia Ross and Dead of Winter


The 1941 novel The Woman in Red has been used as the basis of a film twice, with a four-decade gap between versions. As a special double feature, this week I recommend both adaptations: 1945′s My Name is Julia Ross and 1987′s Dead Of Winter.

My Name is Julia Ross was a modestly budgeted Columbia production with a 12-day shooting schedule. But at that point in his career, director Joseph Lewis was used to churning out a C-picture a week on Poverty Row. To have a B-movie budget was for Lewis a major upgrade in resources that allowed him to show how much talent he had. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film serves up noirish gothic suspense and a career-best performance by Nina Foch as the title character. She’s an American living in London who answers a job advertisement placed by a seemingly gentle old woman (a deliciously evil Dame May Whitty). Julia thinks she will be working as a personal assistant, but instead is promptly drugged, kidnapped and moved to a remote mansion on the Cornwall coast where everyone calls her by a different name and acts as if she’s married to a knife-obsessed weirdo (George Macready, who was made for these sorts of roles)! But the villains have not figured on how brave and resourceful is their prey…

My Name is Julia Ross is often cited by critics as being the perfect demonstration that you can make a fine movie on a low budget. The script and performances are solid and the brisk pacing keeps the viewer engaged throughout. Burnett Guffey, a future Academy Award winner, contributes moody and at times even eerie photography, and Lewis’ influence on shot selection is also easily evident (He loved to shoot actors through wagon wheels and fences, here there are shots through the newels of a staircase and the iron bars of a secured window). It is not surprising that the movie more than returned its modest budget and put Lewis on the path to even greater successes (Most notably, the simply amazing Gun Crazy, which features a central character with a fetish that resembles Macready’s here).


Many years after My Name is Julia Ross was released, Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone re-imagined the story considerably in Dead of Winter, making the lead character an actress desperate for work (Mary Steenburgen, who has fun playing three different characters). She is interviewed for a role by an inordinately polite and at the same time somehow disturbing assistant (Roddy McDowell, who steals the film) to an alleged film producer (Jan Rubes). In the midst of a raging, isolating winter storm, they bring her to a remote New England mansion and ask her to shoot a scene in which she impersonates Julie Rose, an actress whom they claim has had a nervous breakdown and needs to be replaced on a major film production currently underway. But as the audience we know that Julie has been murdered, and our heroine is falling into a web of danger.

Some of the plot twists and shocks in the film are anticipatable, but others are complete, effective surprises. As you would expect from a modern film, there is more graphic violence than in the original, but it’s not at all overdone. As in the original, it’s rewarding to see a strong, smart female lead character and also have a few moments of black humor. The one significant weakness of Dead of Winter is its length. If director Arthur Penn had to work with Joseph Lewis’ budget, I suspect he would have cut the first 11 minutes of set-up and character backstory and opened the film instead with the Steenburgen’s first meeting with McDowell. That would have made a better movie because the film as made can’t keep the audience in suspense throughout its 100 minute running time, even though the climax is truly nail-biting.

As a set, the two versions of this story make an entertaining and suspenseful double feature. Also, for film buffs, watching these films back to back is a chance to appreciate how the production of movies has changed over the decades.

p.s. Some trivia for you: Gene Wilder’s 1984 film The Woman in Red was based not on the book but a French movie).

p.p.s. Steenburgen’s husband in Dead of Winter (William Russ) is apartment bound because his broken leg is in a cast, but he can at least look out his window and take photos with his high-end camera…I think we know to which classic movie this is an allusion!

The Secret World of David Copperfield

Rooks Here is a good trivia question for bibliophiles: What is the full title of Charles Dickens’ classic novel David Copperfield? The answer, believe it or not, is “David Copperfield: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account)”.

An even lesser known fact is that there is an actual place called Blunderstone Rookery. It’s located about 60 miles southeast of London, and the carefully selected rooks that are raised there have won many prizes from British birders over the years. I strongly recommend it as an offbeat, sadly overlooked, tourist spot for Dickens fans, not only for the extraordinary number of birds but also for the library at Blunderstone House, which has an astonishing collection of old Dickens editions.

article-2205444-1516AED9000005DC-681_964x651 I myself am a collector of such editions, and over the years have gotten to know Blunderstone’s librarian, Dr. Arnold Humber, a retired Oxford Don who divides his time between producing some of the nation’s best birds and collecting old books. Dr. Humber is also a voracious consumer of modern literature, and I rely on him to tell me what on the current best seller list is worth my time. Indeed, every time I see him I always ask the same question:

Have you bred any good rooks lately?

Negative Achievements in Politics

John Adams, Master of Inaction

John Adams, Master of Inaction

In recent years, the British economy has been the jobs engine of Europe, enjoying falling unemployment, rising wages and good growth. No doubt many politicians will claim credit based on what they did, but I wonder if any credit will go to someone who helped by not doing something.

I speak of Gordon Brown, who refused Tony Blair’s wishes to join the Euro. No matter what British politicians had done since, it’s hard to see how Britain would currently have half the Eurozone’s unemployment rate if Blair had prevailed. By declining to take action on the Euro, Brown aided his country to a greater extent than he did with many of the policies he actually implemented.

But we don’t generally credit politicians for things they didn’t do, even when their inactions had more benefits than their actions. How many people when listing the achievements of President John Adams would for example mention his not launching a full-scale war with France over the XYZ affair? Yet he might have saved our nascent republic in the not doing so.

It’s not cognitively easy for voters to deal with counter-factuals, and the hero’s narrative that the media loves only works when the hero changed history through some great deed rather than standing pat. That’s probably a bad set of incentives for legacy-hungry politicians because sometimes the advice from the theater holds: Don’t just do something, stand there.

Disseminating Sobriety Monitoring of Alcohol-Involved Offenders in the U.K.

I have collaborated for a number of years with the London Mayor’s Office to expand swift, certain and fair approaches to criminal justice supervision. Our team worked with Parliament to pass a law in 2012 that allow judges to mandate sobriety for alcohol-involved criminal offenders on community supervision. That law allowed us to mount a pilot in South London which has produced encouraging results: Monitored offenders, who wore a bracelet that could detect their alcohol use, were 50% more likely to complete supervision successfully than offenders receiving typical supervision.

Boris Johnson wants to roll the program out across London and the national government wants to expand it throughout the U.K. Terrific. But a word of warning to UK police commissioners and judges who have heard of the pilot and think that slapping a sensor bracelet on an alcohol-involved offender will do the trick (forgive me please for quoting a prior post):

Alcohol-sensing technology is not by itself 24/7 sobriety. The media focuses heavily on the fascinating technology involved in the alcohol-sensing bracelets that offenders will wear. But 24/7 sobriety doesn’t even require the alcohol-sensing bracelets. Indeed, most of its implementation in South Dakota was done via twice a day in person breathalyzation. Detecting alcohol use is essential for 24/7 sobriety to work but the heart of the program is the criminal justice system responding swiftly and certainly when drinking occurs.

Nick Herbert, MP, who helped us get the 24/7 sobriety law passed when he was Minister for Justice and Policing, puts his finger on the principal challenge:

The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice.

What this means for all the innovative judges and policy departments in the U.K. who want to do this is that making this program work will require more than technology. It also requires a systematic effort to start responding rapidly and consistently to infractions (A lot of work at first, but it gets easy quickly as the word on the street spreads that supervision requirements are taken seriously).

If you want to learn more about why this is so and to see the evidence behind these programs, my talk at Policy Exchange is online here.

Sometimes, All You Can Do is Apologize

I had a friend in high school who played with me on a community league softball team. One evening the team we were scheduled to play didn’t show up. A lot of our dads were there, so I suggested with enthusiasm that since we had the field to ourselves, we could play a fathers’ and sons’ game of softball.

My friend said to me “My dad is not going to play softball”.

“Why?” I joked, “Does he have a wooden leg or something?”.

With suddenly red-rimmed eyes, my friend said softly “Yes”.

What are the odds? I was so sorry and I said I was sorry over and over and even as I write this three decades later I am consumed with remorse over how I upset my friend. But at least over the intervening years I have heard other stories that console me somewhat with the realization that it could have been even worse.

Dick Cavett was once walking on a beach when he ran into someone he knew he sort of knew, but couldn’t recall his name or anything else about him. The man clearly knew Cavett though, and started engaging him in conversation. Desperately trying to find something to talk about while not letting on that he couldn’t remember who the man was, Cavett recalled that he had seen in the NYT Arts and Leisure section that a new play was opening on Broadway. He hadn’t read the article, but remembered the title of the play, so he asked if the stranger could believe that “junk like that” was getting on to Broadway.

The stranger replied “I wrote that”.

But it could even worse still, as I found out from John Cleese’s recent autobigography So Anyway. Cleese had written a script to a film and heard from a colleague that a particular director, Jay Lewis, had liked it enormously. A few days later, Cleese rang Lewis to ask him to direct the film:

The phone was answered by Jay’s girlfriend, the actress Thelma Ruby. I greeted her and told her that I was delighted to hear the news about Jay. “We buried him this afternoon,” she replied. I stammered that I was not delighted that he was dead, just that I was delighted he’d liked the script before he died, but that, on the contrary…Then I said, “I’m sorry,” put the phone down and killed myself. Several times.

Pub Quiz: Political Quotes

Some Sunday afternoon fun for political mavens. Below are ten quotes and an alphabetic list of the political figures who said them. Match the quote to the quoted. Answers after the jump. Please post your scores and any comments (including if I misattributed anything — very possible with quotes).

1. The people have spoken…the bastards

2. I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived

3. Something is wrong with America. I wonder sometimes what people are thinking about or if they’re thinking at all.

4. Take criticism seriously, but not personally.

5. If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

6. Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.

7. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.

8. You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.

9. Laws should be made to serve the people. People should not be made to serve the laws.

10. Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation.

Winston Churchill
Hillary Clinton
Benjamin Disraeli
Bob Dole
Frederick Douglass
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Huey Newton
Jeanette Rankin
Harry S. Truman
Dick Tuck

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